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Car-free downtowns, version 2.0?

Earlier, this month, news that Hamburg, Germany intends to go car-free with two decades. Jack Stewart from the BBC writes:

The goal of Hamburg’s project is to replace roads with a “gruenes netz” or a green network of interconnected open areas covering 40% of the city. According to the official website, parks, playgrounds, sports fields, allotments and cemeteries will be connected to form a network, which will allow people to navigate through the city without the use of cars.

On a visit to France and Spain last fall, it was obvious that more and more European cities are taking similar directions. The cities and towns run the gamut from large to very small, but there's clearly a trend to reverse an earlier era that tried to accommodate cars in the center of cities. Here's a photo of the pedestrian-only streets of Carcassone, France:

Carcassone, France

Carcassone, France

While this looks like a very narrow pathway, it is in fact a public street that used to accommodate cars. Perpendicular streets of the same dimension still do. Now, it's a very enjoyable shopping and entertainment street that is clearly thriving.

Walker continues in the article:

Banishing the car from urban areas is becoming a common trend in many European cities. London imposes a “congestion charge” on private vehicles entering the city centre during peak hours. The Danish capital Copenhagen is building bicycle superhighways radiating out from the city centre.

These developments combined may make worrying reading for driving enthusiasts. Is the era of the personal car over?

While the car era may not be over yet (especially here in the US), it is clearly in decline. Numerous forces I've written about before are in play that are causing it, and some cities/regions are much further along than others. 

What's interesting to me is to contemplate what this means for pedestrian-only streets. In the 1960's and 70's, nearly 200 American downtowns changed a street from a through street to a pedestrian-only street. The vast majority of them failed, as we were at the height of the car culture and the move to the suburbs. Removing the traffic was a death knell for many stores.

But not all of them died, and those that have survived in places like Miami Beach, Charlottesville, VA, Boulder, CO and more are very enjoyable places to spend time. For years, many of us in the urban design field have warned cities away from pedestrian-only spaces, as they require certain characteristics to succeed. But now, the game is changing, and it's time to rethink our objections. These spaces when successful are clearly better spaces for humans than comparable streets with the noise and smell of vehicles.

What will happen as our cities continue to mature? Will we also see car-free streets, version 2.0, as many European and Asian cities are experiencing?

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